After two years of contentious debate over how to best deter suicide and prevent accidents in Ithaca’s renowned gorges, construction began Monday on the first of seven nets set to be installed under and around campus and city bridges.
University architects began Monday by working on a net under the Stone Arch Bridge on College Avenue, which crosses the Cascadilla gorge to connect Collegetown to campus. Once the net is secured under the bridge, the black, vertical fence currently in place will be taken down, according to Gilbert Delgado, University architect.
“We are still doing some preliminary preparation work but today is the first day of physical construction,” Delgado said.
After three Cornell students committed suicide off the bridges in early 2010, temporary chain-link fences were erected on several bridges that overlook the gorges on campus. The temporary fences were replaced in the summer of 2010 with the current black fences.
After months of public dialogue over the most effective way to prevent gorge suicides, in December 2011, the City of Ithaca Common Council voted to approve the University’s proposal to install nets under three city bridges. The city’s planning board gave its approval for barriers on the four bridges owned by the University and on the three city bridges also approved by the Common Council, allowing the project to proceed.
Nets are set to be installed under six bridges: the Stone Arch Bridge, Trolley Bridge, Thurston Avenue Bridge, both bridges on Stewart Avenue and the Beebe Dam Bridge. Netting will be constructed around the Suspension Bridge, according to Delgado.
Common Council member Ellen McCollister ’78 (D-3rd Ward) who voted against the nets in December, said at the time that bridge barriers fail to address the mental health factors that are the root cause of the suicides.
Still, McCollister said Monday she acknowledges that Cornell and the city worked together in “a good faith effort” to come to an agreement on a solution to the growing problem. She noted Monday that Cornell will finance the project for the first decade, alleviating the financial burden the construction of the nets would otherwise place on the city.
“Cornell has agreed that it will be paying for the nets for the first 10 years. The city cannot absorb the extra cost,” McCollister said.
In previous meetings throughout 2010 and 2011, Common Council members have said that the nets, in addition to serving as a safety measure against both suicides and accidental deaths, will be an aesthetic improvement from the current black fences.
“The netting is less intrusive, so that’s a good thing, but it’s still a barrier,” McCollister said. “My concern as a policy maker will be to see if the nets make any difference in reducing the overall suicide rate.”
Celia Muoser, president of Cornell Minds Matter, said the student-run mental health organization supports the bridge nets as one component of the University’s efforts to improve improve student mental health.
Several workers were on site at the Stone Arch Bridge Monday afternoon. According to John Pritchard, a worker on site, the crew spent the day drilling the holes for the cables that will hold up the net under the bridge.
As of this week, traffic will not be obstructed on College Avenue as a result of the construction, according to Delgado.